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art by Jonathan Westbrook

Mad Cats and Englishmen

Laura Anne Gilman is the Nebula-nominated author of The Vineart War epic fantasy trilogy, as well as the Cosa Nostradamus urban fantasy series (most recently Tricks of the Trade), and "Dragon Virus", an SF/horror novella. She also writes romance, mysteries, and has actually been paid for her poetry (ok, once). More details available at lauraannegilman.net, or follow her on Twitter: @LAGilman

"I was thinking it's maybe time we had a change of scenery. Maybe do things different around here." It was an idle comment, just the kind one might flick off between washing one ear and digging between his fore and third claws for a bit of sand somehow lodged there. But nothing Oliver ever did was without reason, however distant or obscured.
The sailor paused in coiling the rope, feeling the oiled fiber slide under his calluses. "Captain's not going to like that kind of thinking."
"So don't tell her."
"Hah. Very funny."
It was, actually. Herself was quartermaster, second in command only to the Captain and in truth with more power on-ship than the Captain held. Anyone could be Captain, with enough of the men behind him. Herself was the only one they trusted enough to keep the records, even among pirates and thieves. Dark-haired, dark-eyed, and dark-tempered, nobody crossed her without cause, and often not even then. Captain inspired, but Quartermaster made it happen.
You never told the Captain anything, if you could help it. He tended a bit hot, temper-wise. Herself, on the other hand, she thought things through. Practical-minded, she was, always practical.
Oliver approved. Cats were practical creatures, for all their voyaging ways.
The man stood and braced the small of his back with one hand, stretching the aching muscles while he watched the play of white foam over the waves, then went back to work and looked over his shoulder. Wide-set green eyes met his gaze with equanimity.
"Captain and Herself won't like that idea," he said, referring to his companion's earlier comment.
Oliver yawned, those green eyes slitting closed with the effort. "Look at me, I'm so scared." Herself wouldn't be amused, no. Herself liked order, and the way things were. But Captain might be. Captain used to have a right healthy sense of the absurd, not so long ago. And it was how he came to be Captain himself, anyhow; challenging the order of things.
The sailor shrugged his shoulders, and went back to coiling the rope in a neat pile on the deck. He knew the truth about arguing with women and cats. "Your funeral. You got eight more after, I suppose."
"Six, actually. There was the incident with the Portuguese traders last year. And remember the wildcat in port over the summer?"
"There were many wildcats in port over the summer," the sailor said, his own grin reminiscing. "I didn't bother keeping track of your'n."
"Trust me, this one was worth noticing. Had a coat like silk, and claws… well, it was all consensual, but I need to keep better track of my lives, in a year or three."
"They should have cut you when you were whelped, Oliver."
"And ladies in ports on all five continents would mourn. And not all of them the four-legged sort, either."
The sailor crunched his weather-beaten face in disgust at the thought. "You kiss your mother with those whiskers?"
"Never my mother," Oliver said. "Yours, on occasion, though."
The sailor worked his mouth and spat a nasty stream of spit at the cat. By the time it reached the spot where Oliver had been, he no longer was.
"Damned cat. Should have drowned it, ne'r mind cut 'im."
Around him, the rest of the ship was occupied with normal chores. The wind was southward across the bow, freshening as the sun rose into the sky. They had been off the coastline of the southern islands for three days now, waiting for some signal only the Captain knew of, and the Fifth of Moon was in the finest shape she had ever seen, to the point where the crew was starting to darn each other's clothing, lacking anything else to mend, clean, or polish.
"At this rate, we'll be the sole best dressed pirates on any sea," the sailor said, not without some vanity. Well-dressed, well-rested, and bored out of their minds. What was in the Captain's mind, to keep them still for so long? A pirate's berth was an easy one, compared to life on a navy ship from any country, but easy didn't mean you wanted your crew lazy. Not all the time, anyway. Lazy man was a dead man, on God's open seas. And that was before Herself got done with you.
As though the thought inspired him, he finished coiling the rope into a perfect pile, and went off in search of something else to do. If not busy, look busy.
If Oliver was going to shake the ship up, he wanted to make sure he didn't get tagged with blame for it, too.
"Good Lord be gentle. Not now, I'm busy."
"Oi!" The high-pitched voice was more insistent now, demanding attention.
Oliver finished grooming one paw, flexing each of his six-clawed toes in turn and admiring the ship-shape condition of his cuticles before letting them slide back into his paw. Only then did he turn to greet the speaker, who had landed beside him in a fluster.
"Herself's on deck."
Oliver cocked his head and listened. The sounds from on-deck sounded no different than any other moment of the day. But it wasn't sound that made Herself into Herself. It was motion. Like the ship itself, Herself had a definite sway to her step.
"We're heading into the bay," Oliver said, deciding the clues with ease. "Where else would she be?"
"But why? Why are we leaving the sea? Find out, find out what she's doing!"
Oliver looked at the bird. It was barely the size of his paw, and one swat would send tiny yellow feathers flying. But it perched there on the edge of the Captain's desk, barely large enough to see over the sextant, staring at him with those unblinking little black eyes, and had no thought whatsoever to the dangers of being within reach.
Oliver admired that, he really did. Crazy was a plus, on the Fifth. Crazy and brave made a pirate, no matter they had feet, fur, or wings.
"Why should I?" he asked, contemplating his other paw.
Cheepree flapped its tiny yellow wings in frustration. "Because she won't tell me! I want to know!"
Oliver had never met anything, man nor feline nor fowl, with such damned control issues. Damned bird had to be in on everything, even things he had no cause to know.
"You should have stayed in your nest if you wanted to know everything. On the Fifth you take what you get, unless you think you can do it better?"
Anyone could be Captain, after all.
The bird stared at him, and Oliver wetted down his paw and slicked back the fur under his whiskers one last time, simply to show that he would not be rushed or importuned.
"All right. But only because I'm curious as well. And you'll have to ask me again to share what I know."
Cats weren't cruel, just specific. Although there was some sadistic enjoyment out of watching the bird hop up and down on its spindly little claws in frustration….
The feel of the Fifth underpaw was soothing; she moved through the water in a tidy fashion, rising and falling in harmony with the waves as she cut her tidy way through the open mouth of the bay. A long arm of rocky shore arched around them off the starboard, while a shorter spear of beach ran portside. There were people, still distant, on the beach. They stood and ran towards town as the ship came into sight, as usual. Only here, hopefully, they were running to tell the town council, not the militia.
Herself was at the helm, although one of the sailors had hands on it right then. "Heave to and wait for someone from town to come out to meet us. No need to panic them," she said, then turned to look down at Oliver without actually looking at him.
"We making landfall, or just sheltering?" he asked.
"Sheltering." That was the thing about Herself. She didn't play games. You had to ask, but then she'd tell you, no pawfooting around it.
Of course, she'd only tell you exactly what you'd asked for. For a Spaniard she was remarkably sober. Oliver wondered sometimes why the Captain hadn't strangled her in her sleep, after one of their head-to-heads. The next quartermaster wouldn't be as good, but Captain didn't always think things through before doing.
"Something was following us."
Oliver blinked. Well. That was unexpected.
"Something as in…?" Odds were, someone had spotted a Navy ship out in the blue, and for once, the Captain figured better safe than sorry. They weren't carrying anything that could hang them, but sometimes the navy didn't seem to need a reason. The fact that they flew no country's flag but their own always annoyed the British so much. The piracy aspect seemed almost secondary.
"Something as in…" Herself paused. It was rare to see Herself nonplused: it took something tough to take to the seas in the first place, double so to fly the pirate's standard. To be a woman, and do those things? Herself hadn't done as so many others of her gender, either; no hiding in men's clothing for Her. She stood on the foredeck tall and straight and proud in a rough cotton shirt that was clearly tailored for a woman's form, if closed higher at the neck than most, and a dark gray skirt that fell to her ankles, over boots that were more delicately arched than any man's. Only Oliver, with his unusual ground-up perspective--and maybe the Captain--knew that she wore trou underneath, with a sharp-edged blade sheathed on either thigh, within easy reach no matter how she fell.
"I don't know, Oliver. Captain's the one to ask. Like having eyes on his back and a whisper in his head, he said. Made him think someone's spying on us, watching. Waiting."
A someone that made Captain cautious, and a cautious Captain that had Herself steer them for the coastline, rather than the open seas where the Fifth could outrun almost anything with a hull. A cautious Captain. Oliver blinked once, thoughtfully, and took his leave without further question. Around him, the ship hummed and the sailors worked and shouted and swore, and the wind sapped their flags and ropes, and the boom swung and all was right with his world. But Oliver felt unease. The world was right… and something was wrong.
He went, as he often went when thinking, to a perch a third of the way up the main spar. It was out of the way, so he'd bother no one, with enough of a view to give him perspective but not so high that he could not jump clear come unexpected danger. You learned these things as ship's cat, and Oliver had been on the Fifth since Captain came on board, Oliver a blind mewling kit in his rucksack.
He had been joking, when he suggested that it was time for a new Captain. Or, if not joking, then merely testing the water. He had nothing against the Captain, Captain had done well by them, and they were all the wealthier for it, one way or another. He had seen far more of the world than he might have, left a pub cat among many pub cats, perhaps destined to be drowned before his eyes ever opened.
But they had been covering the same territory for too long now, and with the war between England and Spain heating up again, now was the time to swoop in and catch some explorer's convoy as they returned from the far isles of China and the Indies. No matter what might or might not be watching them, they should not be staying in the old, worn out, if attractive, waters of the Caribe, burning stores and skin without profit. They should not be cautious.
That was not the pirating way.
The town's council granted them leave, and they sailed into port on low sail, as the last of the blood-red sunlight faded behind the walls of the fort high up on the hill over town. The cannon holes were empty; the Spaniards had left this island years ago, and the locals stripped everything in the fort worth looting within an hour of their departure. Pirates did not all take to the sea; some of them stayed on land.
Crew was at half-liberty, free to wander but not far, and not liquid. There was grumbling, but Captain snarled and the grumbling died down.
Herself stalked along the deck, staring first out over the thatched rooftops of port-town, what little there was of it, then back out over the night-black waters behind them.
"I'm off," she announced to the Captain, who merely grunted in acceptance. Oliver sat up and took notice. Herself rarely took liberty, and when she did there was always something up. When she pulled on walking boots, and added an extra sticker to the leather sheath on the side, he was there, chocolate ears pricked and tail alert.
"Not tonight, Oliver."
"You think you can keep me from somewhere I want to be?"
"You don't want to be with me tonight."
"Contrary. That's exactly when I do want to be with you." He was laughing, and she knew it.
"Take him." Captain's voice was clear, surprisingly so. "At least that way I'll know both of you are getting into the same trouble, and only give me one thing to worry about."
Herself glared at the Captain, whose mild brown eyes met her gaze with weary patience, and waited her out. They used to yell; now they only breathed quietly, and waited. Oliver felt the tension simmer and grow, until it filled the entire cabin. Only now, it was Herself rising to the boil.
"Fine. If someone wants to make cat stew and cat-fur bags out of him, though, I won't stop them."
"And I won't protect your pussy either," Oliver said, unperturbed. He would go where he willed; the fact was he wanted to see what she was after. A cat's curiosity was legend, and a ship's cat had more restlessness than even the most curious of his kind.
Captain watched them leave, a small yellow blur on his shoulder. Once, he'd have been first onto land, first into action, adventure. Now, he seemed… wistful. Bored.
Oliver twitched his ears, and felt his whiskers press back against his face at the thought, even as he leaped up onto the railing, and then down onto the front bench of the jolly-boat, settling himself in for the short row to the dock.
They had no sooner stepped out onto the sun-blistered wood of the dock than a flutter of wings announced the addition of a third to their party.
"You shouldn't be here, bird," Herself said.
"You wouldn't tell me when you got back," the bird said to Oliver. "I know you wouldn't. So I see myself."
"Idiot bird." Herself let it land on her shoulder, and then lifted it down into the pocket of her jacket, where the idiot bird nestled down with its head poking out curiously.
"I should have et you months ago," Oliver said in disgust.
"You couldn't digest me," the bird said smugly.
Oliver suspected he could, but he also suspected he wouldn't enjoy it.
"What are we up to?" he asked Herself, instead.
"Going for a drink."
"There are three of us. That's not alone."
He hated when Herself got whimsical. Captain it came naturally to. Herself, it meant trouble. Meant she was trying too hard. With that in mind, he phrased his next question with unusual delicacy.
"Is It still following us?"
"On land?" The question seemed to take her by surprise. "No. He can't feel it between his shoulder blades any longer. We left it in deeper water. Or in the bay, watching the ship."
By ship, she meant the Captain.
"What's it?"
"Hush, bird," Herself said, tapping the pocket in warning.
The bird hushed, tucking its beak back down under one wing with a muffled sniff.
The streets were quiet, most of the buildings dark, even early in the evening. The pub she chose out of the half-dozen they saw had rough-hewn wood walls and a thatched roof overhead, and a full display of odd-looking bottles and dirty glasses behind the wooden plank that made for a bar.
"Girl-ya." The bartender greeted Herself with the odd patois of the portsiders. "Custom's tenpiece, gets you a room with a mattress down. Extra if you're needin' a door. "
"Uh-oh." The yellow-feathered pile peeped mournfully.
Oliver didn't agree with the bird, as usual. It was always funny when someone got the wrong idea about Herself.
"Your custom couldn't afford me," was all she said tonight, though. The bartender stopped wiping a filthy rag around in a glass and looked at her, then shrugged. He was a big, burly man, with dark tattoos on slightly less dark skin, and no hair at all on scalp or chin. "What you buying?"
Herself stepped around a table with a large-bodied male sprawled face down over it, and leaned up against the bar. Oliver padded along next to her, his whiskers twitching in disgust at the smells wafting up from the floor. It was disgusting, the filth land-feet wallowed in.
"Cold gin and half a lime," Herself ordered. "And wet the glass."
"Hah. Sailorgirl-ya, you?" He dipped the glass in a tub of water that almost looked clean, and poured a measure of gin into it, then sliced the green fruit into thin slices and dropped half of them into the liquid. "You here to cause trouble?"
"Looks like trouble already found this place." Half the tables had been broken at one point or another, and all the chairs were badly mended but not occupied. Other than the snoring corpse on the table and two men sitting in the far corner, drinking without speaking to each other, Herself and the bartender were the only humans inside.
"Nobody drinking much here now. Too busy worrying 'bout getting out and off."
"Out?" Herself asked.
"Off?" Oliver thought that was a slightly more important word to question.
The bartender looked down to see where the second voice came from. Like most islanders, he neither shrieked nor swore when there was only a chocolate-brown cat looking back at him, but merely nodded, as though of course this was only to be expected.
"This? Never a place people mean come to, but a half-fine place to be. Ships come and go, supplies come and go, the weather's not un-fine, and not so crowded we fuss much at each other. Then about time the spring rains came, people used to be good folk, not so good any more. Crazy-like. Rest of us lookin' at each other, wondering who gonna crack next, how they gonna 'void it, get off without catching its attention. If you stay, you waitin' for it ta come down and be done wit' it all."
"Waiting?" Herself tensed. "Waiting for what?"
The bartender shrugged. "Don' know. Don' wanna know. I keep here, to my bar, stay away from the water, 'specially at high tides. That way, I stay safe and not-crazy, and maybe someday I get out and off, too. Drink your drink, sailorgirl, and go back your ship before tide gets too high."
Herself nodded, and slipped two coins onto the plank, then kicked back her drink in two swallows. The bartender had already turned away, the coins disappearing under his hand.
"Well," Oliver said thoughtfully, leaping up to sit on one of the few sturdy-looking stools and wrapping his tail around his hindquarters for balance. "That was… enlightening."
"You think so, cat?" Herself didn't sound like she was actually asking a question, or disagreeing with him. She just sounded… thoughtful.
The bird uttered a faint cheep, and looked at Oliver with small black eyes.
"I think we should listen and get back to the ship. Now. As in, already gone."
"Yes, bird," Herself said. "I think you're right."
"You do?"
Oliver wasn't sure it was possible for a bird to look smug, but damned if the featherpot wasn't trying. He really should have eaten the thing months ago.
Walking back through town, Oliver was even more aware than usual of every scent and sound around him. His tail held high and his whiskers curling backward, he
could slide into the shadows at a moment's risk… but what if the threat were to come from the shadows? Best to be prepared to jump either way.
"Liberty's been cancelled," Herself told the guard on dock. "Everyone back on board before sunrise, and they'd damn well better be sober." The guard didn't question, although he could have, and Herself took the jolly-boat back to the ship without another word to the crewmen rowing. She wrapped herself in her own thoughts, and even Oliver, sitting beside her on the bench, couldn't say what she was thinking.
"When tides rise, hey?"
"Who told you that? Never mind. Idiot's query." You didn't have to tell a sailor anything; if it was bad news, they already knew.
The bo'sun leaned on the railing next to Oliver and looked out, away from the darkened town and out to the open sea. The bay was an open one, the arms of the island reaching rather than gathering, and the waves seemed limitless and unending.
"Used to be, this was the good view. Open sail, no walls, no rules save them as we make…. More walls going up every day, though. More rules. Less payday."
"You're getting sentimental and soft in your old age," Oliver told him rudely.
"Maybeso, maybeso." The ship's master had been at sea longer than any of them, an old navvie who memorized every map he'd ever seen, and then fled the King's shilling for a pirate's share. "But maybe it's the ocean's getting harder. Tide rising used to be a good thing. Meant we were never trapped. Now…"
"Now we have no idea what it means. I'm on a ship of old women. Be quiet and look."
The old sailor skewed his glance sideways, the way cats and old women do. "What are we looking for, Oliver?"
"What's under the tide," the cat told him. "Captain sensed it, earlier, came here to avoid it. Now Herself's wondering if it herded us here."
"She told you that?"
"She didn't have to. It's what I was wondering, too."
"Not revenuers nor navvies," the sailing master said. "Not anything in the wind or on the sail. Something under the waves, rising from the deep."
Oliver wanted to tell him again not to be an old woman, but the tremor in his whiskers kept him still.
Rising from the deep, and rising fast.
"Haul and hard, boys, haul and hard!"
That night, Herself and the Captain and the Ship's Master met late at night, lanterns burning into the small hours. The tide had risen with dawn, and nothing had come to snatch them off the surface, but Oliver, sitting in a pool of early morning sun, still felt unease. His whiskers knew something wasn't right.
The Captain strode the upper deck, his shirt open at the neck and his hair loose from its usual queue, rough-chinned and heavy-lidded but full of an almost manic energy, like the man he'd been months before. Around him, the crew fell to their duties with equal fervor, the long, sleepless night now over; the fact of something to do easing their fears. Even Oliver found himself caught up in the Captain's optimism, eventually, although his whiskers knew better.
"Today will be a good day, Ollie!" Mika said as he swung past like a little monkey, dragging a coiled rope almost as large as he at some sailor's command. The cabin boy had come on board the year before, battered and silent, bought in an auction on a whim by the Captain. Now he was cheeky enough to be a cat himself.
"Good day. Huh." Oliver had some thoughts on that himself, but he kept them to himself, leaping gracefully to the top of a bale, and from there up the spar to a half-post where he could see where they were going as well as where they'd been, the bay slipping into the distance as the sales caught wind.
His whiskers twitched, and his ears swung backward against his skull, green eyes trying to see something that wasn't there.
Below, he could hear Herself yelling something, and the Captain's deeper voice cutting across the dozen other shouts and swears of working men, the creaks and groans of seasoned wood that were normal noise aboard the Fifth of Moon. All reassuring sounds of a sailing day.
"I feel seasick."
"You're a bird. You can't get seasick."
"You're sure?"
"So if I throw up on you…?"
"I'll duck the half-digested shells," Oliver promised, sinking his claws more comfortably into the spar of wood.
"We should have stayed in the bay. Maybe the natives were nervous, but I didn't note anyone swimming out to join us, did you?" That was often how they acquired new hands; locals who'd had enough of landbound life, or were willing to trade their labor for a chance to go Elsewhere.
"No." The flutterby had a point. "No, I didn't."
"I hate not knowing what's going on."
And that was probably why he hadn't eaten the bird yet. Maybe different reasons, but they both had a hunger to know, to discover, that drove them out of their usual roles, and onto the mast of a pirate ship, heading into the unknown.
Unknown. How much unknown had there been, recently? Even before the Captain's slow change, the excitement had seemed… much the same. Fun, yes. Profitable, certainly. Still spitting in the eye of the land-bound. And yet…
"Do you see that?"
"There. On the surface."
A gentle swell, nothing that couldn't be explained by a strange wind, or a pod of whales coming to surface, and yet…. His whiskers told him, again, it was none of those things. His skin tensed, under his fur, and his ears prickled.
"Fly down, tell Herself."
The bird dove down, a yellow shot narrowly missing sailors who ducked and swore with months of practice since its fledging. Oliver kept his gaze on the disturbance in the water, the tip of his tail lashing back and forth as though he was waiting for a rat to emerge from its hole.
"What are you, rising up from the depths, so slow and steady?" he wondered, feeling the urge to groom his fur for comfort. "What are you, making my whiskers twitch like a fast summer squall?"
And then the head appeared, and every man, woman, and cat onboard knew what they faced.
"Madre de Dios," Oliver muttered, his whiskers quivering and his tail straight up and bristling. As though it could hear him, the great head turned, rising steadily on a thickly muscled neck, and looked directly at him.
Impossible, of course; the serpent was too far away to be able to see him, much less hear a whisper, especially when there was an entire boat of yelling and screaming humans below. But Oliver felt the instinctive need to bristle and arch his back to appear larger in the face of such threatening interest, as though that might somehow save him.
If this was what the Captain had been feeling between his shoulder blades when they were under sail before, no wonder he was quiet, and uneasy!
The shouts of the sailors were matched by the heavy echoing booms of the cannon being slid out; the Fifth had a half-dozen of the guns, taken from a galleon they'd boarded the year before and mounted, three to a side. But although the guns were at the ready, the gunners did not stand to load and fire.
"We're going to flee." Cheepree was back, backwinging to land on the spar next to him. Oliver had already determined that, from the way the ship was yawing and the crew was scrambling. The shouting was more ordered now, a familiar pattern overlaying
the men's fears.
"He's coming after us," Oliver said. "Captain thinks we can outrun it?"
"Captain wanted to go after it," the bird said. "Herself said otherwise. Crew voted to run."
Not good when the crew voted down the Captain, but it happened, and Captains survived. Oliver was surprised to feel relief. He might wonder about a change, but changing Captains mid-serpent wasn't a wise idea.
"Wow," the bird said. "It's coming fast."
Faster than they were going, Oliver saw that immediately. The head rose out of the water on a neck that was twice as thick as the mainmast, and almost as high. The head itself was probably the size of the jolly-boat, and what that meant about the still-unseen body…
Could swallow one medium-sized cat and not even notice.
Despite running away to sea in a sailor's kit-bag, Oliver was a practical beast. A creature that size, swimming that fast, would have to eat huge meals to keep its strength up. A ship the size of the Fifth might look like a decent meal, but the actual bulk of it was wood and iron, not flesh. Humans might be foolish enough to think that didn't matter, but they had weak noses. A true predator would know the difference…
That meant that either this serpent was a lousy hunter, or it wasn't looking for them to be a meal. So what did it want? What could it want?
What could they give it, to make it go away?
That question in mind, the cat made his way, carefully, down to the deck. Keeping his tail high and his steps precise, he managed to avoid being stepped on by any of the sailors rushing from task to task, or tripping any of them up himself.
"Hullo, cat."
"I don't think it wants to eat us."
The Captain swung around to grin down at Oliver. His face was sun-browned, and his nose was lopsided from far too many breaks, and his eyes squinted half-shut perpetually, but his smile was as bright and open as Mika's. Some on the crew long-suspected the Captain was mad, but if so, it was a madness that had served them well, and profitably. It was good to see it back, no matter the why.
"Neither do I," the Captain said now in agreement. "But these cowards, they chose to fly."
Herself, her feet hooked into the railing and balancing against a post, a spyglass raised to her eye to look back at their pursuit, lowered the 'glass and looked at them. "If it doesn't see us as a meal, why is it chasing us?"
"Because we flew," Oliver said, as though it were completely obvious. In truth, the thought had only come to him then, when he was wondering the same thing. It watched, it menaced, it made everyone uneasy wondering what it would do--but it did nothing. Nothing, until they made their first move.
"Are you telling me," Herself said, stepping down lightly and advancing on their pair of them, "that we're that thing's…. chase-toy?"
Oliver felt his ears go flat and he resisted the urge to twine around her legs ingratiatingly. "Um. Yes?"
The Captain started to laugh, swinging his arms as though to embrace the possibility, and Oliver felt his whiskers twitch, the way they did when a storm was brewing nearby.
"Well if that's so, let's make it a splendid game!"
The Captain's mood was not as contagious as he might have wished; the crew was understandably unnerved by the size and speed of the creature chasing them, and Herself glowering at the stern, spyglass still in hand, did not encourage lightheartedness. Yet, given the challenge, they rose to it as only sailors could.
"I'm truly seasick, now," the bird announced. Oliver spared it a glance. Truth, the feathers around its beak were paler than usual, and the glossy black beak was slightly green-tinged. With four feet securely to the deck, the sudden tack-changes the Captain was putting the Fifth through didn't bother him quite so much, but he imagined flying to keep up with it might be somewhat disconcerting.
"You want me to eat you?" he offered.
"You're disgusting."
Oliver went back to watching the Captain. One hand holding onto the rigging, the other gesturing madly as he shouted instructions to the crew, he swung dangerously out over the water as the ship veered first one way and then the other, but never seemed to notice the danger.
"Mind yourselves!" the coxswain shouted as the ship tacked sharply. "First tar to go over stays over!"
"Captain needed this," Oliver said, everything suddenly clear.
"What, being chased by a great beastie and making like a moon-touched fool?"
"Yes. Exactly."
"Humans." The disgust in his voice made Oliver laugh. The bird ate from Herself's hand; it had never hunted for anything in its life. Prey never got bored. It didn't understand. Captain needed this. The serpent needed this. Maybe, even the ship herself needed this.
The sun rose overhead in the cloudless sky, and the wind remained brisk and steady, filling their sails with much-needed wind, as though God Himself were betting on them.
The serpent was close enough now that they could see the details of its great head, a triangular wedge that was in fact larger than the jolly-boat, set with scales that glistened in the morning sunlight, dull green and muddy blue, set around a great black eye that didn't seem to blink. The neck stretched out, even as the boat changed direction and avoided it by half a dozen ship-lengths.
The distance was closing, and only the skill of the crew and the kindness of the wind was keeping them this far apart, this long.
Oliver had seen the carcass of a great squid, once, hauled up by a whaleboat crew and left to rot on the beach. The serpent's eye was like that, large and glassy. Only this one was attached to a living creature, and looking at them.
Looking at him.
Oliver suddenly felt queasy.
There were some islands the Captain told him to stay on the ship. Those places, cat was considered a delicacy.
"Now you know how I feel," the bird said, too observant, fluffing its feathers and preening them back down again.
"Oh, shut up," Oliver said, and jumped down to go join Herself.
"Hard starboard," the Captain called, and his body swung to the left as the Fifth obeyed his command. Seawater splashed on his boots, and his laughter rung out over the sails like church bells on Sunday.
"He's going to get us all killed," Herself muttered, but even she had the hint of a smile on her face. Captain, at his best, had that effect on some. "Englishmen, pfah!"
The wind picked up, and the sails overhead belled exactly the way they were designed to. Oliver dug his claws into the wood to keep from sliding as the Fifth zagged and then zigged in a way she hadn't been designed to.
"Steady on now," the Captain roared to the crew, his shirt stained with sweat and his voice hoarse from overuse. "Steady and hard, boys, that's the way to show this beastie who's lord of the sea!"
The serpent, suddenly zagging itself, cut through the wake of the ship.
"Ware the tail!" someone shouted, even as something moved under the surface, creating a wave that slapped the side of the Fifth like an irate whore.
"Hah!" Captain abandoned his perch and raced along the gunnel to the stern, whooping like a boy even as sailors scattered before him.
"Be careful, you idiot," Herself whispered. Cheepree fluttered up to her shoulder, and plucked a strand of hair with its beak. Oliver stirred, his claws kneading the hard wood underpaw, torn between the need to feel her hand on his fur, and the desire to go chasing along with the Captain.
"You!" Captain's voice carried the length of the ship, over the creaking of wood, the shouting of men, and the slush and slap of water. "You, beast!" A wave rose up and splashed him, head to toe, and he seemed barely to notice. A sailor tossed him a rope, yelling something, and he shrugged and wrapped it over one shoulder, a half-hearted concession to the risk he was taking.
Oliver braced himself with all four legs, feeling disaster place its cold finger on the spine of the ship. There was challenge, and destiny, but this… this was madness. What was the Captain doing?
What he had to do, his whiskers told him. What you told him to do.
The great head reached forward, snaking almost at water's level. The scales were each the size of a child's open hand, the eyes all pupil, inky black and soulless. The wedge-shaped head had a single opening at the top, like a whale's blowhole, while the long snout tapered into a sharp beak that curved downward in a cruel edge.
"The devil itself rides that thing," one of the sailors muttered, unable to look away.
"The devil is that thing," another said.
Captain either did not hear them, or was listening to another voice, because he leaned out, the rope over his shoulder strained tight, and extended one arm toward that vicious beak.
The head turned sideways on its neck and snapped at him. The Captain swung back, laughing like a fool.
"Pass me a stave," he shouted over his shoulder. No one moved, save what was needed to keep the ship steady and moving. "A stave, damn you!"
Mika shoved through the bodies, a wooden stave near as tall as he gripped in one hand.
"Good lad," Captain said, somehow knowing who it was without looking back, as it passed from the boy's hand to his own. Then he swung his body out, dangerously far over the water, only the rope and his one hand's grip keeping him on the ship. His other hand, gripping the stave, reached out over the distance between ship and that reptilian head, and thwapped it soundly between plate-sized eyes, like St. George tagging the dragon.
The serpent pulled back, the lower jaw dropping to show a double row of teeth. The Captain fell back, gagging as a miasma of dead fish washed over the deck.
"Back, beast; your breath will kill!"
The head ducked, as though hearing and considering his words, and the Captain whooped, charging forward again. The serpent slipped a few length back from the boat, as though conceding the game--then surged forward and knocked the madly-gesturing human off the rail with a hard blow of that massive pointed head.
"Captain!" The voice rose from half a dozen throats, Oliver's included.
Herself wasted no more time with foolishness. "All fire! Now!"
Fuses were lit and the portside cannon jerked in a harsh syncopation of shot, puffs of smoke rising into the air with an acrid smell.
The serpent ceased swimming, the eyes showing what Oliver swore was surprise in their depths, and the great head sank, slowly, out of sight, until only ripples on the waves remained.
Of the Captain, despite all efforts, there was no sign.
The creak of the sails overhead matched the groan of the wood as Herself paced back and forth across the cabin's floor. A glass of port was in her hand, but she had not taken a sip for a dozen or more paces
"Why did he do it?" Herself asked. "Why did the beast follow us to begin with?"
"It wanted to see what we would do," Oliver said once again, calmly washing one paw. "It was waiting for someone to play with it."
"Play. Madness."
Oliver had no shoulders with which to shrug. Humans and serpents, he understood neither one.
"And play he did, did our man." Herself--the newly-elected Captain--drank from her glass, then, a long hard pull that left the glass half-empty. "Two foolhardy fools, daring each other, risking--what? Why? What game is worth dying for? Gems, gold, land, that sort of prize I can understand. A game of... what? Of tag? How on god's green sea can you tell who won?"
She shook her head, and placed her empty glass down neatly on the table. "And now he's played his last, and the ship, damn him, is mine. I'm for bed, cat. A night's sleep and a day's work and maybe the world will make sense again. Turn down the lamp when you've done."
"Good night, Captain," Oliver said.
Captain's footsteps sounded through the cabin, then the hiss of a sulphur match, and a low glow came from under the door of her bedchamber, followed by the soft sounds of her settling into her bunk.
Birds and men might question, but he was a cat, a practical creature, and he took things as they happened. Captain would do well by them, in her own sober way. The ship would sail into profit, and occasional battle, and the crew would rep the benefits of both in proper and orderly fashion. Those were the prizes and risks the crew signed on for.
There were some, though, who could not be sated with wealth, or exhausted by sweat; he remembered the Captain-as-was's mad grin glinting, the swoop of his sun-browned hand as he reached out toward the unknown, his hesitation and unhappiness gone, and thought that Herself had it wrong.
The world didn't make sense, and everyone lost, in the end. All you could hope for was to go out in style. For some, that was draped in gems, for others glory--and for some, the true pirates, it was surrounded by undiscovered scenery, chasing the final unknown--and the stories you would leave behind.
As the last of the lamp's light flickered and died, Oliver curled comfortably on the desk and rested his chin on his paws, his tail curled over his nose, and fell asleep to the slow rocking of the ocean.
It wasn't only cats who could live nine times, after all.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, April 20th, 2012

Author Comments

Everyone has a talking cat story inside them. Most of us are wise enough never to let it out. In point of fact, I didn't know this was a talking cat story until I was halfway through the first page. At that point, I almost tossed the entire idea onto the scrap heap, but it wouldn't let me go. The fact that this was, at heart, a very serious story meant that I had to walk carefully, and not let any of the characters fall over into parody or spoof--they had to be real, and capable of pain and contemplation as well as humor, but at the same time, the utter insanity of the entire scenario needed to be addressed... you must be mad to begin with, to hear an animal converse with you....

- Laura Anne Gilman
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